"The Sandman: Volume One - Preludes & Nocturnes" Trade Paperback Review
Written by James "Spez" Ferguson
Pubished by Vertigo Comics (DC)
Originally published as The Sandman #1 - 8
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III
1989, 240 pages
Trade paperback released on December 7th, 1993
While I still think that Preacher is the best gateway comic book for new and old fans of the medium, The Sandman is probably the best adult comic. When I say "adult", I'm not talking pornography. I mean that this is a book that is written solely for and is most enjoyed by an older audience. Nothing is stopping a younger crowd from picking the book up and reading through it, but an adult would appreciate the story and the sheer epic size of it a lot more.
Epic is a good word to describe this first volume of The Sandman. Author Neil Gaiman plants the seeds in these first eight issues for a story that went on to be the only comic to win the World Fantasy Award among many others. The story starts up in the early 1900s where an occultist group attempts to summon and capture Death herself. Instead they get her younger brother, Dream, who looks like a paler, skinnier version of the lead singer of The Cure. They attempt to get information and various wishes granted, but Dream sits in his prison stoically, biding his time until he can make his escape. He has a long road ahead of him though. He was stuck on Earth for decades and while he was gone, his realm has fallen to pieces. Dream must first get back his tools of the trade before he can begin repairing his kingdom. These include a bag of sand, a helmet and a ruby. Each contains a piece of himself within it and each contain a great deal of power.
The Dream Realm is a spooky place to begin with but when it is in shambles it's even moreso. Freddy Kreuger may be the king of the netherworld on Elm Street, but Dream could run circles around that guy without even trying. He is every dream and nightmare you've ever had and ever will have. He has the power to walk through your dreams, helping or hurting you as he passes by. He can create or destroy.
Dream's search for his tools leads him to Hell and this is really where things get interesting...and terrifying. While the art looks rather dated, especially by today's standards, the scenes in Hell show some of the most gruesome demons imaginable. Sam Kieth, who later went on to create The Maxx, really shines here. There's a two page spread where the Lords of Hell have summoned all of the demons in Hell. It's filled with all shapes and sizes of creatures and no two of them look alike. The rest of the pencils by Mike Dringenberg and Malcom Jones III, who picked up after Keith left the book, seem pretty standard for the time frame. However, there are several panels that look like they're trying too hard to be artsy with bits and pieces of photographs cut in over and around the characters. The covers by Dave McKean get a lot of praise too, but I just don't see what's so special about them. They're all weird and a little spooky but 99% of the time they look nothing like anything else in the book and rarely have anything to do with its contents. As a stand-alone they look OK, but as comic book covers I just don't see it.
While the demons and the Dream Realm are creepy, nothing was as unsettling as Dr. Dee. He's a former super villain who has come into contact with Dream's ruby and used it to force people to do whatever he wants. He takes over a diner and over the course of 24 hours puts the customers and employees through some of the most horrific acts imaginable all for his viewing pleasure. Dream has to take him down not only for himself but for everyone on the planet.
The Sandman started up before DC's mature line, Vertigo Comics existed. As a result, this volume actually takes place in the proper DC Universe. There are cameos by a number of popular characters from the superhero world including the Scarecrow, Etrigan the Demon, and Martian Manhunter. I don't know if these were an editorial mandate or if Gaiman just threw them in because he was able to play in that sandbox without sharing his own toys. These appearances don't feel forced, though. There's enough information for any reader to get through it without questioning who's who or needing to know 75 years of back stories. That being said, there's also some slight nods to aspects of the characters that die hard fans would know and appreciate.
The first seven issues are one arc of the story and introduce many of the characters in Dream's world. These include Cain and Abel and Lucifer Morningstar, one of the Lords of Hell. One of the most interesting characters isn't introduced until the 8th issue which is a stand-alone story. That is Dream's older sister, Death. She's drawn like every goth guy's fantasy woman and she has a plucky, surprisingly positive attitude. You can tell by Gaiman's writing that the two are close and Death treats Dream just like a sibling would. She also makes fun of him for being a little emo bitch lately (not in those words, obviously). Death and Dream are just two children in a larger family called The Endless. A few others are mentioned, but are not seen in this volume including Desire, Destiny, and Despair. Notice a pattern here? They appear more prominently in future volumes. Gaiman is constructing the foundation of his story here.
The Sandman is a rarity in comics. It is a story that has a beginning and an end. Also, with the exception of one or two cases, the main characters have remained largely untouched by anyone aside from Gaiman himself despite the series selling very well. There's a reason for that. Some things you just don't mess with. When someone can create a story like this and craft it so damn well, you kind of want to leave him alone and not try to do what he's doing and mess it up. Preludes & Nocturnes is just a peek into something so much more but what it is at its very heart is a fantastic story.
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